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Reports of sexual assault at U.S. military academies have significantly increased

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Recently released figures from the Pentagon show a significant increase in reports of sexual assault at America's military academies. Those figures are only part of a troubling pattern that stretches back decades, as Colorado Public Radio's Dan Boyce reports.

DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: In 2003, the U.S. Air Force Academy was at the heart of a national scandal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Air Force is investigating a widening sexual abuse scandal at the prestigious institution in Colorado Springs.

BOYCE: A whistleblower complaint documented a long-standing practice of academy leaders minimizing sexual assault claims. Then, a survey found 12% of female cadets were the victims of rape or attempted rape during their time there. Here's NPR host Michele Norris, speaking with then-Secretary of the Air Force, James Roach.

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MICHELE NORRIS: Does this suggest that there's a problem with the culture of the military - that even now, in the year 2003, the military is still not accommodating to women?

JAMES ROACH: Well, I'm trying to separate the difference between the military and the Air Force Academy. This is not an Air Force problem. This is an Air Force Academy problem.

NORRIS: And does it suggest that there's a problem with the culture of the academy?

ROACH: Yes.

RACHEL VANLANDINGHAM: That was the first time the Air Force started to really take seriously the idea that structural changes and continuous oversight of the Air Force Academy was absolutely needed.

BOYCE: Rachel VanLandingham is a law professor and president of the National Institute of Military Justice. That's today. Back in 1988...

VANLANDINGHAM: I showed up as a brand-new 18-year-old at the Air Force Academy straight out of Toledo, Ohio, not having any idea what I was getting myself into.

BOYCE: What she was getting herself into was what she describes as a culture of complete misogyny.

VANLANDINGHAM: It was the drumbeat of the environment that was there. It was hard to get away from that when there were constant comments - constant sexual harassment comments and comments that women were just lesser.

BOYCE: The resulting investigations found leadership had long known about the problems, without taking action, and that broad structural change was needed not just at the Air Force Academy, but across the military. It all led to the creation of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response - or SAPR - offices at every U.S. military installation in the world.

And that brings us back to 2023, where Sonja Strickland runs the SAPR office at the Air Force Academy. Her office is currently in the process of doubling its size, from 12 to 25 full-time staff.

SONJA STRICKLAND: Am I proud that I still have to work in this field? No, I would love to one day say I no longer have a job. I've had to move on to something else. We've tackled the issue of sexual violence. But we haven't.

BOYCE: Before cadets even arrive on academy grounds, they receive packets in the mail discussing alcohol, mental health, sexual harassment. And soon after they get to the academy...

STRICKLAND: We have healthy relationship education, and we have trainings that talk about healthy boundaries. You know, how do you ask for consent?

BOYCE: All of this at an institution rooted to its core in a deep honor code. Despite that code and all the work from Strickland's office, the results just released from a Pentagon survey show a significant increase in sexual assault at the Air Force Academy since 2018. Twenty-two percent of female cadets report unwanted sexual contact, which the survey describes as anything from touching all the way up to rape. And that figure is 4% for men. Both those figures are the highest on record. Now, a new group of volunteer cadets has been trying to do something about it.

TARYN CATES-BEIER: It's this braid of cord...

BOYCE: That's Taryn Cates-Beier - points to a teal-colored rope attached to her camouflage uniform.

CATES-BEIER: ...Tied onto your left shoulder, and it's looped around your arm. And it signifies what your job is and what you are a part of.

BOYCE: These cadets call themselves, appropriately, the Teal Ropes. The group formed a few years ago. More than 90 cadets who have gone through rigorous training to be liaisons, peers, available anytime to talk to potential victims of assault and then help them navigate the daunting process of reporting what happened. Teal Rope cadet Jennifer Bahna.

JENNIFER BAHNA: And when they tell you, it is heartbreaking. Like, I would be lying if I said I didn't cry when they cried. And, like, just letting them know that, like, I believe you - seeing their face when you, like, tell them, like, I believe everything. I want to help you.

BOYCE: Those first conversations could lead a potential victim to the SAPR office. It's a warm and inviting space where Teal Ropes and staff offer tea and stress balls. They put together puzzles. And more victims have been walking into that office, have been filing more formal assault reports. Bahna says there is something positive there. Maybe the Teal Ropes are helping build trust in the SAPR office.

BAHNA: At first, like, I'm always really, really sad - ugh, there was, like, 50-some people that had to go through this. I know what that's like, and I'm so sorry. But at the same time, you know what? Those 50-some people came forward and spoke their story and felt comfortable taking action. And that's empowering.

BOYCE: Other factors could be leading to more victims coming forward. A 2020 rule change now allows cadets to report assaults without being cited themselves for misconduct, such as underage drinking. Still, Rachael VanLandingham with the National Institute of Military Justice is not impressed with how the Pentagon has handled the uptick in cases.

VANLANDINGHAM: Well, I don't see anything positive. We don't know if the number's going up because there's greater reporting or if the number's going up because there's a greater number of actual sexual assaults occurring.

BOYCE: The Pentagon calls the rising sexual assault numbers at all three military academies unacceptable and upsetting. Military leaders all the way up to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are promising reforms. In the meantime, a provision in last year's defense budget moves the prosecution of some crimes, like sexual assault by service members, away from commanders and into the hands of independent prosecutors. That goes into effect at the end of the year.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOGWAI'S "TAKE ME SOMEWHERE NICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dan Boyce
With over a decade of journalism experience, Dan joined Colorado Public Radio in 2018 as a regional reporter covering major news developments in Colorado Springs and surrounding areas. Previously in his career, he covered state government for Montana Public Radio as the capitol bureau chief. Additionally, Dan was a reporter for the Colorado public media collaborative, Inside Energy, and a freelance journalist whose work was featured on NPR’s Environment & Energy Collaborative.